When “Veronica Mars'” creator talked with Kickstarter about launching a crowdfunding campaign to fund a movie, Kickstarter joked it would end up on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. A year later, it's already there.
“Veronica Mars” will be the greatest test yet of Hollywood's uneasy relationship with crowdfunding.
Few established filmmakers had experimented with Kickstarter when Rob Thomas, creator of the “Veronica Mars” TV show, mounted a campaign to raise $2 million for a movie.
He raised $5.7 million, more than any other film or video project in the history of Kickstarter. That enthusiasm encouraged Warner Bros., whose TV studio produced the show, to greenlight a movie. On Friday, Warner Bros. will become be the first major studio to release a movie widely associated with crowdfunding. It will release “Veronica Mars” online and in theaters at the same time – a practice known as “day-and-date” that is typically reserved for independent films.
“The ‘Veronica Mars’ story is already a success,” Mike McGregor, Kickstarter's head of communications, told TheWrap. ”They financed the whole film and didn't go into red. The box office results should only be positive.”
Thomas may share McGregor's enthusiasm, but financial officers in Hollywood do not see it that way. They will look at box office receipts this weekend to see whether that initial groundswell of support helped the movie reach a broader audience.
“It would have to be a massive success to make them pay much attention,” Braxton Pope, who used Kickstarter to raise money for his movie, “The Canyons,” told TheWrap via e-mail. “I actually don't get the sense that studios are particularly interested in crowdfunding. They are in the tentpole, spectacle, franchise, brand-exploitation business and crowd funding is viewed as relatively small potatoes.”
Studios’ devotion to lavish spectacle explains why Thomas resorted to Kickstarter in the first place. He tried several times to make a movie after the CW canceled the show in 2007, meeting with studios and pitching his ideas. No one, besides executive producer Joel Silver, was interested.
“I would write it if anyone would finance it,” Thomas said during the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in 2010. “If anyone's interested in making that movie I am available, Kristen's [Bell] available. I would love to do it. I think the closest we came was Joel [Silver] pushing it at Warner Bros. and they didn't bite. It has sort of gone away.”
It came back because of those rabid fans, hundreds of who contributed at least $1,000 to attend premieres in Los Angeles, New York and Austin (along with perks like T-shirts and DVDs). 20 people paid at least $2,500 just to be an extra in the movie and three paid at least $6,500 to name a character in the movie.
Thomas almost convinced Warner Bros. to go the crowdfunding route in 2012, making the video that kicked off the campaign that year. Warner Bros. pulled back at first.
“There are some examples of big TV shows that have made a leap over to being theatrical releases, but not a ton,” Andy Mellett, an SVP in Warner Bros. digital division, told TheWrap. “There was a hugely passionate and a great audience – but a smaller audience nonetheless. It was hard to make a profit-and-loss sheet work.”
Yet the popularity of the video within the studio gave it enough confidence to launch the campaign in March.
Following Thomas’ success, Zach Braff, Spike Lee and several other filmmakers have jumped into the crowdfunding pool.
Braff's movie, “Wish I Was Here,” became the second project to earn the imprimatur of a major studio when Universal's Focus Features acquired it after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Yet Focus did not buy the movie expecting to make $100 million. “Garden State,” Braff's previous film, grossed $35 million worldwide.
Yancey Strickler, Perry Chen and Charles Adler did not conceive Kickstarter for commercial reasons. They sought to empower creative people and facilitate connections with potential fans of their work. Before crowdfunding, an artist, entrepreneur or video game designer would come up with an idea and have nowhere to turn. They could go to a bank for a loan, or pass around flyers, but the success rate was low.
At least half of the projects on Kickstarter still fail. That is one reason Indiegogo, a rival platform, permits you to keep whatever you raise, regardless of if you hit your target. Yet whether you succeed or not, direct access to potential fans – and their money — protects your creative vision. That is why prominent filmmakers such as Braff, Lee and Paul Schrader — the latter of which directed “The Canyons” — have turned to Kickstarter. Sure, they could get a movie made with the support of more traditional financiers, but they would need to take notes from a studio and surrender final cut.
“It would have involved making a lot of sacrifices I think would have ultimately hurt the film,” Braff wrote on the page for his campaign.
“After I saw the incredible way ‘Veronica Mars’ fans rallied around Kristen Bell and her show's creator Rob Thomas, I couldn't help but think (like I'm sure so many other independent filmmakers did) maybe there is a new way to finance smaller, personal films that didn't involve signing away all your artistic control.”
Movie studios remain unsure what to make of these efforts, but they are intrigued by crowdfunding for financial reasons.
Any movie that raises a substantial amount of money from a wide range of supporters has established a fan base that wants to see the movie. In the age of video games, HBO, Netflix and iPads, movie studios want a degree of certainty they are offering something more compelling than what is in your Netflix queue. Crowdfunding is also a way of marketing a movie that costs nothing. In fact, it saves you money.
“A huge benefit from crowdfunding is building awareness and growing an audience prior to the film's release,” Pope said. “The publicity from Bret [Easton Ellis] and Schrader, from embracing crowdfunding and also social media, collectively a cluster of new media techniques, was extremely helpful to a small film where it is extremely difficult to be heard above the cultural chatter.”
Yet studios are not itching to use crowdfunding to finance most of their movies, which costs tens and often hundreds of millions of dollars. Many of them are uneasy about soliciting contributions publicly, and most of them see crowdfunding as the province of smaller films.
“It has really remained in the purview of independent filmmakers and artists, with a more recent embrace by individual celebrities leveraging their profile,” Pope said.
If “Veronica Mars” succeeds, it could encourage more people to make projects they have struggled to make. It could also spur studio executives who have debated the idea of crowdfunding development money, taking some risk out of the process while evaluating whether a fan base for the movie exists.
“A year ago Hollywood executives would have thought it was laughable that ["Veronica Mars"] would open in more than 250 theaters nationwide and be on the cover of Entertainment Weekly,” McGregor said. “Now it's very much a reality.”